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What Causes Foot Peeling & How to Find Relief

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Last updated October 14, 2021

Foot peeling quiz

Take a quiz to find out what's causing your peeling.

While the feet are used to wear and tear, peeling feet can signify an underlying condition that may require medical attention. Skin peeling on the bottom of the feet can most commonly be caused by a fungal infection called athlete's foot, sunburn, dermatitis, or dry skin. Read below for more information on causes and how to treat peeling feet.

Foot peeling quiz

Take a quiz to find out what's causing your peeling.

Take foot peeling quiz

Symptoms of peeling feet

Foot peeling is an unsightly ailment that may also be problematic from a health perspective. Our skin is subjected to irritation day-in and day-out from a variety of sources and serves as protective barrier for the body. It keeps water in and helps limit the effects of the elements (wind, sun, rain, etc.) and pathogens on the internal components of the body. Our feet specifically are often subjected to extreme heat, moisture, or even dryness.

Common accompanying symptoms of foot peeling

If you're experiencing foot peel, you may also experience:

  • Itchiness
  • Burning or stinging
  • Shedding of skin from the feet
  • Dry skin
  • Redness

What causes peeling skin on feet?

The following details may help you better understand your symptoms and if and when you need to see a physician.

Environmental causes

Your feet may peel due to lifestyle habits or certain exposures.

  • Trauma: Irritation of the skin, particularly if repeated, can lead to foot peeling symptoms. Irritants include everything from ill-fitting footwear, physical activity, chemicals in soaps, detergents, and acids.
  • Environment: Hot, cold, wind, sun, humidity, and dryness can all cause the skin to react by peeling. A sunburn, for example, can lead to excessive dryness that, in turn, results in foot peeling symptoms.
  • Bodily function: The body naturally sheds skin across the body. Unlike many parts of the body, the feet are prone to build-up, which results in skin peeling.
  • Fungal: Fungi enjoy the warm, moist areas provided by the body. Athlete's foot is an example of a fungal condition that results in foot peeling.
  • Allergies: Certain substances can cause a skin reaction on the foot.

Inflammatory causes

Bacterial infections can lead to foot peeling.

Systemic disease causes

Your feet may peel due to underlying conditions such as the following.

  • Hereditary: Some inherited conditions cause foot peeling as a primary symptom. These conditions are likely underdiagnosed because the symptoms are not severe and mimic other skin conditions.
  • Cancer: Whether a byproduct of cancer itself or brought on by the methods used for treatment, foot peeling has been linked to the disease.

This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.

Non-specific dermatitis (skin inflammation)

Nonspecific dermatitis, or contact dermatitis, simply means inflammation of the skin from many different causes.

Most nonspecific dermatitis is caused by skin contact with a substance that provokes a reaction, which could be anything from plants to soap to jewelry to fabrics. Some may be due to an autoimmune condition, where the body's immune system attacks itself.

Risk factors include a family or personal history of allergies, asthma, or other condition which weakens the immune system; or constant contact with metals, plant life, or chemicals.

Symptoms commonly include red, swollen skin rash with itching, blistering, or oozing, which may become painful and infected.

Dermatitis itself is not contagious but can interfere with quality of life. A medical provider can help with managing the symptoms.

Diagnosis is made through patient history, physical examination, and sometimes skin biopsy and patch testing.

Treatment involves using protective measures if the substances cannot be avoided; making nutritional improvements to strengthen the immune system; using corticosteroid or other creams; and phototherapy.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: red rash, itchy rash, painful rash

Symptoms that always occur with non-specific dermatitis (skin inflammation): red rash

Urgency: Self-treatment

Foot peeling quiz

Take a quiz to find out what's causing your peeling.

Take foot peeling quiz

Irritant contact dermatitis

Irritant contact dermatitis means a skin reaction that is caused by directly touching an irritating substance, and not by an infectious agent such as a bacteria or virus.

Common causes are soap, bleach, cleaning agents, chemicals, and even water. Almost any substance can cause it with prolonged exposure. Contact dermatitis is not contagious.

Anyone who works with an irritating substance can contract the condition. Mechanics, beauticians, housekeepers, restaurant workers, and health care providers are all susceptible.

Symptoms include skin that feels swollen, stiff, and dry, and becomes cracked and blistered with painful open sores.

A medical provider can give the best advice on how to heal the skin and avoid further irritation. Self-treatment can make the problem worse if the wrong creams or ointments are used.

Diagnosis is made through patient history, to find out what substances the patient comes into contact with, and through physical examination of the damaged skin.

Treatment involves avoiding the irritating substance if possible. Otherwise, the person can use petroleum jelly on the hands underneath cotton and then rubber gloves.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: rash with well-defined border, itchy rash, red or pink, rough patch of skin, painful rash, red rash

Symptoms that always occur with irritant contact dermatitis: rash with well-defined border

Symptoms that never occur with irritant contact dermatitis: fever, black-colored skin changes, brown-colored skin changes, blue-colored skin changes

Urgency: Self-treatment

Sunburn

A sunburn is inflammation (a reaction by your body's immune system) caused by too much UV (ultra-violet) radiation, which is part of the sunshine. While the symptoms eventually go away, the cells of the skin are permanently damaged, and over time, the risk of skin cancer is higher. Further, the damage reduces the skin's ability to repair itself, speeding up the formation of wrinkles and other signs of aging.

Although there is not much clinical evidence to support its effectiveness, moisturizers like aloe vera and oil-based lotions, creams, and ointments provide a protective layer on the damaged skin, speeding up healing. Cool compresses are also useful. Ibuprofen or other similar NSAIDs are effective in reducing inflammation and pain. Wearing sunscreen when going back out in the sun is also key to reducing further damage.

Normal occurrence of dry skin

Dry skin can be caused by overheating during the winter or air conditioning in the summer, the loss of sweat and oil glands as you get older, and overuse of things like soap, antiperspirant, perfumes, and hot baths.

You can treat this at home by using a moisturizer to reduce water loss and soothe the skin.

Rarity: Uncommon

Top Symptoms: dry skin

Symptoms that always occur with normal occurrence of dry skin: dry skin

Urgency: Self-treatment

Non-specific foot rash

A rash is an area of irritated or swollen skin. Often, rashes are unidentifiable and some variation of normal. For example, scratching one's arm causes it to turn red (which is caused by mast cells releasing chemicals into the local area), but that's completely normal.

At this time, you do not need treatment for this rash. If it worsens, you may need to consult a physician.

Hypothyroidism

Hypothyroidism, or "underactive thyroid," means that the thyroid gland in the neck does not produce enough of its hormones. This causes a slowing of the body's metabolism.

The condition can occur due to autoimmune disease; any surgery or radiation treatment to the thyroid gland; some medications; pregnancy; or consuming too much or too little iodine. It is often found among older women with a family history of the disease.

Common symptoms include fatigue, constantly feeling cold, weight gain, slow heart rate, and depression. If left untreated, these and other symptoms can worsen until they lead to very low blood pressure and body temperature, and even coma.

Diagnosis is made through a simple blood test.

Hypothyroidism is easily managed with daily oral medication. The patient usually starts feeling better after a couple of weeks and may even lose some extra weight. It's important for the patient to be monitored by a doctor and have routine blood testing so that the medication can be kept at the correct levels.

Eczema (atopic dermatitis)

Atopic dermatitis, also called eczema, dermatitis, atopic eczema, or AD, is a chronic skin condition with an itchy rash.

AD is not contagious. It is caused by a genetic condition that affects the skin's ability to protect itself from bacteria and allergens.

AD is most often seen in infants and young children. Most susceptible are those with a family history of AD, asthma, or hay fever.

Infants will have a dry, scaly, itchy rash on the scalp, forehead, and cheeks. Older children will have the rash in the creases of elbows, knees, and buttocks.

Without treatment, a child may have trouble sleeping due to the intense itching. Constant scratching may cause skin infections and the skin may turn thickened and leathery.

Diagnosis is made through physical examination, patient history, and allergen skin tests.

AD cannot be cured, but can be controlled through prescribed medications, skin care, stress management, and treatment of food allergies. Those with AD often have allergies to milk, nuts, and shellfish. Keeping the skin clean and moisturized helps prevent flareups.

Foot peeling quiz

Take a quiz to find out what's causing your peeling.

Take foot peeling quiz

Athlete's foot (tinea pedis)

Athlete's foot is a common fungal infection of the feet and/or toes. Warm, moist environments and community showering are common causes of this type of infection.

Over-the-counter treatments are quite effective at treating athlete's foot. They can come in the form of sprays, ointments, or even oral antifungals. Consider replacing shower footwear and bleaching any bathroom floors.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: foot redness, foot/toe itch, foot skin changes, spontaneous foot pain, peeling between the toes

Symptoms that always occur with athlete's foot (tinea pedis): foot redness

Symptoms that never occur with athlete's foot (tinea pedis): toe injury

Urgency: Self-treatment

Allergic contact dermatitis of the foot

Allergic contact dermatitis means the skin has touched something that provoked an allergic reaction, causing inflammation and irritation.

"Contact" means the allergic reaction came from touching something, not from consuming something. The first exposure to the substance sensitizes the immune system, and then the second exposure actually causes the symptoms.

The most common causes of allergic contact dermatitis are:

  • Nickel, a metal often used in belt buckles, the buttons on pants, and jewelry, including piercing jewelry.
  • Poison ivy.
  • Various types of perfumes, including those founds in soaps, fabric softeners, and detergents.
  • Of course, there are many more.

Symptoms include red, itching, scaling, flaking skin that may be painful due to the irritation and inflammation.

Diagnosis is made through first avoiding contact with any suspected substance, to see if the dermatitis clears. Patch testing can be done if the results are not certain.

Treatment involves fully avoiding the allergy-provoking substance and using topical steroid cream as prescribed. Cool compresses and calamine lotion can help to ease the discomfort.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: foot redness, foot/toe itch, scabbed area of the foot

Symptoms that always occur with allergic contact dermatitis of the foot: foot redness

Urgency: Self-treatment

When and how to treat peeling skin on the bottom of feet

At-home treatments

You can begin treating your foot peeling at home with the following remedies.

  • Warm water and a scrub: Soak the affected area in warm water for up to 20 minutes to soften skin so you can remove it with a gentle scrub.
  • Moisturizer: Repeated applications of lotion to the affected areas can help limit foot peeling symptoms.
  • Hygiene: Keep your feet clean and dry to help prevent fungus. Similarly, wear clean socks, well-ventilated shoes, and protect the feet in public areas such as pools to help maintain overall foot health.
  • Over-the-counter medications: Several powders or creams exist to treat athlete's foot and reduce peeling.

When to see a doctor

Contact your doctor if you experience any of the following.

  • Severe pain associated with peeling
  • Peeling that does not subside for two to four weeks
  • Fever
  • Concerns regarding the cause of the peeling

Medical treatments

Oral antifungal medications or antibiotics may be necessary for more significant causes of foot peeling. Prescribed foot creams are also available.

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Dr. Rothschild has been a faculty member at Brigham and Women’s Hospital where he is an Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. He currently practices as a hospitalist at Newton Wellesley Hospital. In 1978, Dr. Rothschild received his MD at the Medical College of Wisconsin and trained in internal medicine followed by a fellowship in critical care medicine. He also received an MP...
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References

  1. Cunliffe T. Peeling Skin Conditions. Primary Care Dermatology Society. Updated July 6, 2016. PCDS Link
  2. Athlete's Foot. NHS. Updated September 2, 2018. NHS Link
  3. Acral Peeling Skin Syndrome. NIH: Genetics Home Reference. Published November 27, 2018. GHR Link
  4. Why is the Skin Between My Toes Peeling? Foot.com. Published March 12, 2018. Foot.com Link
  5. Cracked or Dry Skin. Seattle Childrens Hospital. Updated October 29, 2018. Seattle Childrens Hospital Link